My Mother’s Records

Not being in the mood for anything new I re-read Jonathan Coe’s nostalgic novel The Rotters Club on holiday the other week. The book is set in Birmingham in the 1970s and one of the major events in it is the horrific bombings at the Mulberry Bush and Tavern In The Town pubs in the city which killed 21 people on one night in November 1974.

Two characters in the story are in the latter pub that fateful night and one detail Coe adds is that the last song playing on the jukebox of the Tavern In The Town right before the bomb went off was “I Get A Kick Out Of You” by Gary Shearston. I can only assume Coe made that up because I can find no reference to it anywhere else, but it’s perfectly feasible as the record was a big hit at the time, getting to No.7 in the charts the month before the bombings.

Though she already had a version of the song by Frank Sinatra my mother bought the record because she loved Shearston’s lazy, laconic take on it — complete with an acoustic guitar intro stolen from “My Sweet Lord” — which really brought out the urbane ennui of Cole Porter’s lyrics. Despite his Ferry-esque croon, Shearston (who died last year) was actually an Australian folk singer and this was a one-off novelty hit that he recorded for a lark. Part of the success of such an old-timey record was probably due to the 1970s nostalgia vogue when even Laurel & Hardy and Glenn Miller got in the charts.

This is one of the records that most reminds me of my mother so I was a little bothered by Coe placing it in the terrible context of the Birmingham pub bombings, as if he was messing with my own memories. But one of the book’s strengths is that Coe avoids the superficial, I Love The Seventies! version of the decade — nothing but flares, Glam Rock, and big sideburns — which a more obvious signifier of the era like Bowie or T. Rex would have been. Going with a forgotten one-hit wonder — and slightly cheesy one at that — can tell you more about the actual, ordinary reality of the 1970s than “Starman” does.

Download: I Get A Kick Out Of You – Gary Shearston (mp3)

PS: How nice looking was the Charisma Records label?

Look Back In Kindness

Watching Get Carter also reminded me that I have this: A note playwright/actor John Osborne wrote to my Dad and put inside the copy of his autobiography he gave him (and I now have).

If you can’t read his writing this is what it says:

Dear John,
You said you’d read the article — here’s the book. Many thanks for all your kindness and help when I went ‘tramp’ in July 1980.

Cantos [?] Christi,

I have no idea what “when I went ‘tramp’” means but knowing about Osborne — violent temper, five marriages, heavy drinker — I imagine he was on his arse for some reason.

Though Osborne is excellent in his small part as the crime boss Cyril Kinnear in Get Carter he is, of course, better known as a playwright, particularly for Look Back In Anger and The Entertainer, and is credited with revolutionizing British theatre in the 1950s. Regular readers of this blog will know that my Dad worked in the theatre which is how he would have met him.

I studied Look Back In Anger for my English A-Level which, funnily enough, I took in 1980 around the time he was going “tramp” — if I’d known my old man knew Osborne that well then and that he owed him a favour I’d have asked to get him to help me with the exam.

Download: Look Back In Anger – David Bowie (mp3)

UPDATE: Thanks to keen handwriting analysis by Martin in the comments he make have written “twang” and not “tramp” which makes even less sense to me.

The Life

Browsing Carnaby Street! God, before there was Tiles, that was what Sunshine used to do everyday at lunch. Sunshine, whose real name is Tony Newman, of Stamford Hill, Tottenham, and who used to be called Blossom (well, Sunshine tops Blossom anyway) Sunshine would cut out of the stationer’s store with the straight lunch mask on and then head straight for Carnaby Street and then just walk up and down Carnaby Street’s weird two blocks for an hour, past the Lord John, West One, the Tom Cat, men’s boutiques with strange enormous blow-up photographs in the windows, of young men flying through the air with some kind of Batman jockstraps on and rock music pouring out the doors, and kids just like him, Sunshine, promenading up and down, and tourists, christ, hundreds of tourists coming in there to photograph each other in front of Male West One instead of Big Ben, and busloads of schoolgirls with their green blazers on and embroidered crests on the breast pocket, all come to see the incredible Carnaby Street, which turns out to be a very small street with shops and awnings and people standing around with cameras in their hands, and Sunshines, all the Sunshines of this world trundling up and down for their whole lunch hour, not eating a goddamned thing, just immersing themselves in The Life.

Tom Wolfe, The Noonday Underground (1965)

Download: The ‘In’ Crowd – The Ramsey Lewis Trio (mp3)

Words and Music

If my house was on fire the first thing I’d try to save — after my kids, obviously — would be my record collection. But then I’d have to dash back into the burning house to get my books because losing those would be almost as traumatic.

I’ve been buying books (mostly fiction) for almost as long as I’ve been buying records, starting in my early teens when a paperback cost 50p which was about the same price as a single. Both were cheap entry points into obsessions that have since consumed vast chunks of my time and wages, and I’ve spent (not wasted!) as much of my life browsing in book shops as I have record shops — I could soak up the ambience of those two places all day.

My literary preferences have evolved and changed in much the same way as my musical tastes too. I read a lot of science fiction when I was a teen into the cosmic Prog-Pop of ELO, as a moody/arty lad in my twenties I favoured “difficult” authors like William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon whose linguistic envelope-pushing and edgy subjects were the literary equivalent of post-punk. Then there was the spiky misanthropy of early Martin Amis which every young man goes through a phase of, like being a Mod or a Punk. Now I’m old and less impressed by wordy fireworks I’d rather sink into the clean, unfussy prose of a Evelyn Waugh or Raymond Chandler. But I still love discovering new writers as much as new bands, like Jennifer Egan whose novel A Visit From The Goon Squad thrilled me as much last year as hearing Frank Ocean’s album.

Not surprisingly I have the same love of books as fetishistic objects that I have for records. It’s mostly paperbacks that I get all drooly over, from a design point of view I think they’re just perfect little things and prefer their more accessible, egalitarian nature and lack of preciousness. While a hardback is like a heavyweight concept album with a gatefold sleeve, a paperback is still like a pop single to me (though not as cheap anymore), a potential revolution of the mind in a portable package and I’m rarely more content than when I’m sitting on the bus lost in a great paperback. Then I look around me and see everyone staring at their iPhones and I die a little inside.

Download: Read It In Books – Echo & The Bunnymen (mp3)

Pulp Literature

This cover appears to be from an alternate universe where Graham Greene is Mickey Spillane.

Though I guess technically the blurb at the top is accurate: Pinkie Brown is a psychotic killer and Brighton is a summer resort.

Download: Brighton Rock – Queen (mp3)

Books on the Tube

I did like reading a book on the Tube but now I’m no longer in London I have to make do with reading books on the Tube like this lovely-looking series of 12 books Penguin have put out to celebrate the Underground’s 150th birthday. Each one is about or inspired by a single Tube line with the authors taking a variety of approaches — historical, personal, humourous, political — to capture the meaning and, er, pyschogeography (big word!) of the system that binds the city together. I don’t think I’ll be shelling out for the whole boxset but to start I’ve ordered the ones about the lines that mean the most to me personally: the District (home), Northern (work), and Piccadilly (clubbing). Though I am intrigued by what Paul Morley has to say about the Bakerloo Line.

Download: Man On The Tube – The Passions (mp3)

This is from The Passions debut album Michael & Miranda which I wasn’t crazy about at the time (think I sold my copy) but its very 1980, nervy indie jangle sounds really good now. It appears to be out of print which is a shame, I guess they didn’t get “rediscovered” during the recent post-punk vogue.

The Shortest Book In The World

I don’t wish to offend any Welsh people and I’m sure that there have been several famous battles fought in Wales (mostly against the English I bet) but I must admit that when I saw this book my first thought was of the old playground jokes about the shortest books in the world — like Italian War Heroes, The Biafran Book of Cookery, The Irish Book of Knowledge, and The German Joke Book.

There was also English Fine Cuisine so we were pretty much equal-opportunity offenders back then.

Here’s someone from the book Famous Welsh Singers which isn’t very long either but is full of quality.

Download: Chills And Fever – Tom Jones (mp3)

Bloody Pulp Fiction

We all know the Lord of The Flies cliche about boys being little more than savages beneath a thin veneer of civilization, and anyone who has gone to an all-boys school knows that this is pretty much true. My comprehensive was no different, a pressure-cooker of raging hormones and cruel adolescent power games where the strong mercilessly preyed on the weak, the bookish, the different, the short-sighted.

Not surprisingly our tastes in reading material leaned toward the violent and nasty, and if it had a sprinkling of smut in it too so much the better. There was a sort of underground lending library system at school with certain parent- and teacher-unfriendly books being passed from one kid to another, often with the “good” pages marked for easy reference. Popular reads were Richard Allen’s Skinhead books and Jaws by Peter Benchley, but it was The Rats by James Herbert that was the must-read book we all couldn’t wait to get our hands on. I remember that it had such a cult, talked-about status at school (and a controversial reputation elsewhere), that when I finally got a copy passed to me I felt like I was handling radioactive material and immediately hid it in my Adidas bag until I got home.

Published in 1974, The Rats is a gruesome novel about London being terrorized by giant mutant rats with a taste for human flesh, and is full of lurid descriptions of people being attacked and killed in very, very nasty ways:

But as he stood, one of the larger rats leapt at his groin, pulling away his genitals with one mighty twist of his body. The tramp screamed and fell to his knees, thrusting his hands between his legs as if to stop the flow of blood, but he was immediately engulfed and toppled over by a wave of black, bristling bodies.

As you can imagine we — pardon the expression — ate this up with glee. A tramp had his knob bitten off by a rat! That bloke had his eyes chewed out! They ate a baby! I read it again recently (well, skimmed would be more accurate) and while I wouldn’t exactly call Herbert a good writer he’s an effective and efficient one; the story motors along from one horrific scene to another with no distracting subplots, and the only chapter that doesn’t have any bloody carnage in it has a sex scene instead — x-rated, vividly-described sex of course (chapter eight if you’re interested) — so the book managed to get our adolescent blood pumping into more than one organ. No wonder it we loved it so much, it was if it had been written by a committee set up to produce a book just to satisfy our particular bloody and lusty imaginations.

It’s been claimed that, under the schlocky horror, The Rats is actually a damning portrait of the run-down, dysfunctional state of London — and England — in the 1970s, and reading it again with grown-up eyes I did think that if you took away the killer rats you’d have a social-realist polemic. There are lots of angry references to slum neighbourhoods in the East End, dirty canals, neglected bomb-site wastelands, people living in poorly-built “concrete towers” with stinking rubbish chutes, and at one point the dustmen go on strike forcing the Army to be called in to clear rubbish from the streets which actually happened during the Winter of Discontent in 1979. The rats may have been mutant freaks but the novel makes it clear that they bred and thrived in a city one character curses as “Dirty bloody London!”

So if a teacher had caught me with it and asked me why I was reading such junk, I could have replied “Actually sir, it’s a devastating critique of the social, political, and environmental conditions in London today” — and he probably would have given me a clip ’round the ear and confiscated the book.

Download: Down In The Sewer – The Stranglers (mp3)
Buy: Rattus Norvegicus (album)
Buy: The Rats (book)

What’s it all about?

The sentimental musings of an ageing expat in words, music, and pictures. Mp3 files are up for a limited time so drink them while they're hot. Contact me: lee at londonlee dot com


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